One Cook's Best Dish

Pepper harvest accents many a meal

The crop includes several varieties of peppers, ready for pickling and roasting. The crop includes several varieties of peppers, ready for pickling and roasting. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Jane Dornbusch
Globe Correspondent / October 21, 2009

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CANTON - Brooke Vosika doesn’t quite have a peck of peppers, but he’s pretty close. The aroma of grilling peppers draws a visitor into his kitchen on a brilliant day recently. Inside, several pint baskets of colorful peppers are lined up on the counter, ready for pickling, roasting, and most important of all, simmering into hot sauce.

Vosika, executive chef of the Four Seasons Hotel in Boston, is not just a consumer of the peppers - he’s also a grower. His hot sauce goes onto dishes he makes at home for himself and his wife, Annette Wilfong. “I try and grow as many peppers as I can,’’ he says. Mostly this is left to Wilfong, who does the family’s serious gardening at their cabin in Woodstock, N.Y., but Vosika also plants a few deckside containers here. “I grow, he cooks,’’ says Wilfong.

Come harvest season, there are tiny Thai bird’s-eye peppers, incendiary habaneros, flavorful serranos, tabasco peppers, cayenne peppers, glossy purple-black bell peppers, and more. Much of the crop is simmered into hot sauce, which yields about a gallon total, says the chef. “End of August, beginning of September, when it starts to cool down - that’s when I pick them,’’ he says. “If I know a frost is coming, I take the whole plant and hang it upside down; it dries and continues to ripen.’’

Today, as Vosika stirs various combustible concoctions of peppers, garlic, vinegar, salt, and spices, he’s accompanied in the kitchen by Jamie Mammano, chef and owner of Mistral, Teatro, Mooo, Sorellina, and L’Andana. The two chefs came up through the Four Seasons and have been friends and cooking buddies for more than 25 years. In fact, they finish each other’s dishes rather than sentences. They have other joint projects: The two also make 50 or 60 gallons of wine each year, aging it in barrels in Vosika’s basement. “The first year,’’ says Mammano, “we were the only ones who liked the wine.’’ But they’ve perfected their techniques and each year the vintage improves.

Mammano dunks a tasting finger in a pot of Scotch bonnet sauce. Scorchingly hot? Sure. But, he says, “I have no fear.’’

“It’s not as hot as you think,’’ counters Vosika. “I like the Scotch bonnet; it has a little bit of a floral taste.’’

The chefs are each preparing a dish accented with the home-grown peppers. Vosika is grilling a beautiful steak he’s aged for several weeks, and accompanying it with garlicky fire-roasted red peppers; Mammano is re-creating a swordfish dish he serves in some of his restaurants. A relatively thin cut of fish steak is grilled quickly over hot coals and topped with a mixture of grilled onions, plum tomatoes, and peppers.

As the chefs step out on the deck to grill, Mammano admires Vosika’s flourishing plants. “Neptune, baby,’’ says Vosika, referring to the fish-based fertilizer, Neptune’s Harvest, that’s one of the keys to his pepper success.

Preparing hot sauce might seem like something best done in a factory, but it’s surprisingly easy to make at home. Vosika has a basic formula that he varies in any number of ways, but essentially, it’s peppers simmered in a mixture of vinegar and sea salt, pureed, and either strained (for a more liquid version) or not (for more body). Sometimes he grinds the peppers first; sometimes he adds sugar, garlic, or even fruit such as papaya; sometimes he switches up the vinegar. It’s easy to experiment and come up with a unique house blend. If you don’t grow your own peppers, they’re abundant at farmers’ markets and farm stands.

Vosika finds plenty of ways to use his hot sauce, from brining chicken to basting barbecue. They have not yet made it onto a dish at the Four Seasons. Peppers are more than an interest for this chef; they’re an inspiration. “Hot sauces are one of the reasons I became a chef. They’re a real joy of mine,’’ he says.